NEW YORK – To tell the story of the 2006 National League Championship Series is to tell the story of the ball that won it for the St. Louis Cardinals, how it just kept flying through a driving rain, blown by the wind and carried by fate. The guys in the dugout were saying, "Go, go," and the guys in the bullpen were saying, "Come on, ball, come on," and Yadier Molina, the guy who hit it, wasn't saying anything, because he'd seen a ball struck like that earlier in the night, seen a home run stolen, seen the way a Game 7 can make the sturdiest men turn to putty.
When the ball did clear the left-field fence for a two-run home run in the top of the ninth inning, it took one hop and landed in the mitt of Cardinals bullpen catcher Jeff Murphy.
"And from there, I ran right behind the plate and started catching Adam Wainwright," Murphy said. "Because I knew we had a game to finish."
About 15 knee-knocking minutes later, Wainwright did close out the New York Mets by striking out Carlos Beltran with the bases loaded, and the Cardinals advanced to the World Series with a 3-1 victory Thursday at Shea Stadium, their 83-win regular season forgotten and their 17th NL pennant – along with Molina's heroics – fresh on their minds.
In fact, Murphy, ever aware that Molina's home-run ball was the Hope Diamond of the Cardinals' season, stuck it in his back pocket for safekeeping until the game was over, then handed it off.
"Mark Walsh has it," said Murphy, soaked in champagne, and before he could answer the question of who Mark Walsh was, a chaotic scene started to unfold.
By that point, the Cardinals had sprayed 50 bottles of champagne, soaking each other, the carpet and every carbon-based element in sight. Awaiting them were the Detroit Tigers, who will be heavy favorites, much like the San Diego Padres were in the division series and much like the Mets were in the NLCS. St. Louis would get little rest, flying into Detroit early Friday morning, working out that afternoon and readying for Game 1 on Saturday at Comerica Park. The Cardinals wanted to announce, once and for all, that they did not intimidate easily.
They chanted "Soup" for Jeff Suppan, the NLCS MVP, who gave up a run and two hits in the first inning and spun a hitless final six innings. They chanted "Jo-se, Jo-se, Jo-se, Jo-se," set to "Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole!", mocking the Mets fans who feted Jose Reyes with that greeting throughout the series. And loudest of all, they chanted "Yadi," again and again, for their 24-year-old catcher, one of the best defensive players in baseball and, in 2006, among the worst offensive.
Only two players with more than 400 plate appearances had a worse on-base-plus-slugging percentage than Molina's .595, and his .216 batting average was second lowest. In his three-year career, Molina had hit 16 home runs – the same number as Game 2's unlikely home-run-hitting hero, So Taguchi.
"Don't talk about the regular season," Molina said. "This is my regular season right now."
In the NLCS, Molina hit .348 with a team-high six RBIs, two more RBI than the entire Cardinals infield. And with the Mets pitching around Cardinals star Albert Pujols in Game 7, the No. 2 hitter, Preston Wilson, and No. 4 hitter, Juan Encarnacion, went 0 for 8 with five strikeouts and a double play.
"Who," Cardinals reliever Braden Looper said, "would have thought Yadier Molina was going to be our offensive leader?"
An apropos question, certainly, for a series that delivered the unexpected like a hospital full of pregnant 40-year-olds.
While Detroit sat at home having clinched the American League, the Cardinals and Mets weathered two rainouts and watched Taguchi, David Eckstein and Suppan hit home runs. They saw the emergence of Mets rookie John Maine, the lockdown job of a no-name Cardinals bullpen and the coming out of Carlos Delgado in his first postseason. To cap the series, Oliver Perez pitched the game of his life for the Mets, Suppan matched him the whole way, Endy Chavez made one of the great catches in playoff history and Mets manager Willie Randolph made one move too few, leaving right-handed reliever Aaron Heilman in for the ninth inning after he finished the previous frame with a pair of strikeouts.
With Scott Rolen on first base following a single, Molina drove a first-pitch changeup 370 feet. Though stoic as the ball soared, Molina thrust both fists in the air when the ball landed and deflated the crowd of 56,357 as if it were leaking like a deadening balloon. As he strutted into the dugout, Molina gave his best friend on the team, Pujols, an intricate, eight-part high-five, and was reminded that before the game, Pujols said Molina would get the game-winning hit.
Whether apocryphal, the story led to asking Molina about the ball's whereabouts, figuring he would have already secured it.
"No," Molina said. "And I don't care, either."
Give him 24 hours. Let him remember what the Cardinals overcame this game, let alone this season, and he'll want to know about every scuff on the ball, every gnarled seam, all the stories he can tell about how he won a pennant.
Why, three innings earlier, the Mets looked unbeatable. Rolen, in a terrible slump, sent a ball deep to left field, seemingly on the same path as Molina's home run. Only Chavez timed his leap like a ski jumper, his right arm so high that his elbow was parallel to the 8-foot-tall fence, and caught the ball. Chavez's wrist snapped backward, the pressure forcing the ball to the tip of his glove, and somehow he held on and composed himself to start a double play that nabbed Jim Edmonds at first.
Perez pointed to the sky. He was done. Chavez fixed his gold chain that came out of place, brushed himself off and left to a folk hero's applause.
"Swift kick in the … leg – the shin," Rolen said. "It hurts me to get kicked in the shin. I didn't react much because it was an unbelievable play. I thought it went over the fence. I saw some white when he caught the ball. I thought it bounced."
In the bottom half of the inning, the Mets loaded the bases with one out against Suppan. He struck out Jose Valentin, one of only two strikeouts, and induced Chavez, his former teammate in Kansas City, into an inning-ending flyout. That inning, as much as any, earned Suppan the MVP award, which he celebrated without his father, Larry, who left to see a cardiologist in California only to realize he didn't have an appointment Thursday.
"Look at what he missed," Suppan said.
Plenty of action following the home run, too. Wainwright can be hit or miss, sometimes batter to batter, and he followed two misses – singles by Valentin and Chavez, the first Mets hits in seven innings – with a huge hit, catching Cliff Floyd staring at a breaking ball. Jose Reyes' line drive to center field set off a couple pacemakers, Paul Lo Duca's walk to load the bases set off a few more and up stepped Carlos Beltran, the Mets' $119 million man and, some say, the new Mr. October.
Fans waved white towels compulsively and the crowd buzzed like a swarm of cicadas. On the first pitch, Wainwright pumped in a changeup for a strike. Next pitch, he sent Beltran fishing for a breaking ball out of the strike zone. And the third pitch was one that will get the replay treatment, a curveball that turned Beltran into a mannequin.
"I couldn't pull the trigger," Beltran said, and he could have extrapolated that to his teammates, who, excluding their 12-run outburst in Game 4, hit .207 and averaged 4.2 runs per game.
In the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, down by two, pennant on the line – the true boyhood fantasy – Beltran watched strike three.
"That's the last guy in the world I want up to bat in that situation," Wainwright said. "But you know what? With the way this team has fought so hard, I wouldn't want it any other way."
Wainwright, too, had handed an important ball to Walsh, who the Cardinals said was down the hall. There, instead, was the Mets' emptying clubhouse. Pitching coach Rick Peterson remained, talking with closer Billy Wagner, who blew Game 2. Chavez relived his catch with a friend. Randolph still wore his jersey, all but the bottom button undone. And a plastic tarp covered the speakers, a harsh reminder of what could have been.
"In the ninth, I was expecting a walk-off," Mets general manager Omar Minaya said. "We had so many walk-offs this year."
No, there was just one home run, and the ball was in Mark Walsh's left pocket. Amid all the bedlam in the clubhouse, Walsh had snuck to his spot in an enclave along the rotting green carpet that leads to the visitor's dugout in Shea. Walsh has been a Cardinals clubhouse attendant since 1989. He helps keep the team's uniforms clean, its inventory straight and its whims – no matter how whimsical – met. Through the years, he has earned people's trust.
So Murphy, the bullpen catcher who snagged Molina's home run, went right to Walsh and left the responsibility with him. Walsh got it authenticated by Major League Baseball, and with an instant classic in his left pocket – not to mention the ball with which Wainwright caught Beltran looking in the right pocket – Walsh calmly stacked jerseys and helped St. Louis pack for its charter.
"I'm just more worried of something happening to it," Walsh said.
He planned to hold on to the balls for the rest of the night. In Detroit, which is actually less World Series-starved than St. Louis – the Cardinals' 23-year drought since 1982 is the worst in franchise history, and the Tigers last won in 1984 – Walsh will present Molina his ball after he gets pilloried with questions about fellow Puerto Rican catcher Ivan Rodriguez and how he feels to be the underdog again and what it's like to go from 83 wins to four victories from a championship.
"By then," Walsh said, "I think he'll want to keep it. This is history."
He patted his wind pants. That ball was history. It had come and it had gone like they asked it, turned an entire clubhouse of men to putty while keeping them afloat, and it carried a fate that this time of year never seems to rest.